Stimulating Citizens to Community Action in Urban Areas:

Media, Interpersonal Networks and Organizations


Leo W. Jeffres


The relationship between citizens and local government in urban areas has had a long and colorful history. A century ago political machines in major American cities were the citizen’s representatives for a host of services and personal opportunities, often doled out as ethnic patronage (Cochran, 1995-1996; Sowell, 1981). While political parties continue to play a role mediating influence between officials and the electorate, today, city halls and elected councils largely operate through grassroots interpersonal channels and the media (Krebs, 1998). And citizens hoping to influence actions of their elected representatives must depend on media that increasingly neglect coverage of the routine public business shaping the lives of urban dwellers. Into this mix comes research suggesting that Americans in general, and perhaps urbanites in particular, are avoiding organizations, even though they have been identified (by social scientists) as a source of social capital enhancing civic action and public life (Fost, 1996; Putnam, 1995).

Media and interpersonal channels of communication link citizens to their local community governing bodies, but to what extent does involvement in communication networks actually translate into citizen efforts to influence official actions? The role of media as “watchdogs” is a long-established function that would seem to rest on news and information that not only informs the electorate but also stimulates them to action (Lasswell, 1948). However, as newspapers have moved away from coverage of meetings and routine events, particularly of city councils, there is some question as to whether the media are effective in carrying out this function. At the same time, the Internet offers direct links between governing bodies and the citizenry while opening up channels of criticism and influence attempts from bloggers and citizen action groups (Jeffres & Lin, 2006). And this occurs at a time when another source of concern and involvement—organizations—is waning if the forecasts by Putnam (1995) and others are true. Organizations are seen as opportunities for people to build trust through face-to-face communication (Coleman (1988; Wollebaek & Selle, 2002),[i] and they have been viewed as the embodiment of “social capital” (see Wilson, 1997). Numerous researchers have linked organizational ties to community involvement, in the United States and other countries.[ii] Mayer (2004) describes how social capital is being used by researchers and practitioners in community development to frame local state-society relations and to examine civic engagement and volunteer activities.

Here we ask how communication channels—interpersonal and mass—and organizational involvement affect citizen attempts to influence their local government, through contacts, letter writing, attending meetings. Furthermore, is the influence direct or through general patterns of political involvement that encompass voting and partisan politics? These questions will be examined with data from a survey of a major metropolitan area in the Midwest.

Social Capital at the Community Level

The research on social capital[iii] and communication has mushroomed since Putnam’s “bowling alone” article. Putnam (1993, 1995, 1996a, 1996b; CBS Worldwide, 2006) concluded that social capital in the American society is declining as civic organizations disappear and reduce face-to-face social interaction and civic conversations. Some of the interest in the concept stems from the prospects for building social capital and its impact on community development (Mayer, 2003; Warner, 2001). It makes sense to study the relationship between involvement in local organizations and community action since membership in national groups with no local presence provides no obvious opportunity for the interpersonal communication expected to build social trust. Involvement in local groups that provide volunteers to improve neighborhoods and solve community problems is important for the urban environment and local governance. Block clubs in urban neighborhoods are probably one of the most important examples of organizations impacting local problems. They also can be seen as sources of influence attempts on public officials. Research on social capital often has focused on general political involvement, particularly election campaigns, but often integrating local civic involvement (Hays, 2007); for a good example see Scheufele, Nisbet, Broussard and Nisbet (2004), who look at social settings where citizens discuss politics and its impact on political activity.[iv]

If social capital refers to capacity or resources for collective action,[v] then outcomes certainly should refer to influence attempts as examples of such directed behavior. Numerous researchers note that the concept of social capital originated to explain how citizens cooperate with each other and engage in collective action, to pursue shared objectives. Do people attempt to effect change, to exert influence, to improve life while working with others? Community actions or outcomes fall under the umbrella of efforts to improve the quality of life (Lochner, Kawachi & Kennedy, 1999) or promote economic development (Warner, 2001); at the individual level these can translate into personal actions where one participates in community improvement efforts or programs (Liu & Besser, 2003; Moy, Scheufele & Holbert, 1999; Scheufele & Shah, 2000; Shah, McLeod & Yoon, 2001).

Communication and Organizational Involvement as Predictors

The link between organizational involvement and communication—particularly interpersonal, or face-to-face communication--is well established. Scheufele et al. (2004) asked people how frequently they discuss political topics across three organizational settings, work, church and volunteer groups. We know from the diffusion literature, that it is informal settings where influence is often passed (Rogers, 2003). Looking at both group membership and face-to-face contact within organizations, Wollebaek and Selle (2002) found that both were important for generating social trust but belonging to several associations, regardless of the level of interpersonal contact or the group purpose, had the strongest impact on social trust. Although their measures are categorized as “neighborliness” rather than communication, Lelieveldt (2004) did find such interpersonal measures as talking with neighbors and discussing problems predictive of involvement in a program to improve living conditions of deprived neighborhoods in the Netherlands.

However, organizations are not the only context for interpersonal communication, and recent research documents the importance of community communication networks, which represent informal exchanges among neighbors as well as ethnic groups and other opportunities in the urban environment (see, for example, Jeffres, 2002). One noteworthy example of this is the metamorphosis project documenting the importance of story telling in ethnic communities of Los Angeles (Ball-Rokeach, Kim & Matei, 2001; Matei, Ball-Rokeach, Wilson, Gibbs & Hoyt, 2001).[vi] Also, Jeffres, Atkin and Neuendorf (2002) found macro community variables, communication variables (that include media use, channel dependency, neighborhood communication patterns, and interpersonal links), community variables (that include neighborhood activity, community attachment, neighboring and community perceptions) predicting community political involvement and a measure of efficacy at the community level. Thus, we clearly need to separate out interpersonal communication patterns from group affiliation as sources of influence.[vii] Whether the relationships established in the literature for general civic involvement or political activity can be extended to attempts to influence governance at the community level is the point of our first two hypotheses:

H1: Organizational involvement will be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level.

H2: Involvement in community communication networks will be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level.

Social categories such as education and gender are influences on political action and the other sets of variables, so they will be controlled in examining these and subsequent hypotheses and research questions.

Mass communication variables also play a role, and decades of research have documented the relationship between media use and various forms of political and civic activity (see Jeffres, 1997, pp. 205-244). McLeod, Kosicki and McLeod (2002) summarize the literature focusing on media effects and political participation; media use stimulates interpersonal discussion about campaigns (e.g., McLeod et al., 1979), and both are related to voting and political activities (Chaffee, 1972; Pfau, Diedrich, Larson & Van Winkle, 1995).[viii] Seeing media use as influencing organizational involvement, Putnam (1995) blamed television for the decline in organizational involvement, but the literature does not support his displacement hypothesis (Moy, Scheufele & Holbert, 1999) and others have found news and informational uses of broadcast or print media positively related to civic attitudes and one form or another of civic engagement (Hooghe, 2003; Scheufele et al., 2004; Shah, McLeod & Yoon, 2001). McLeod et al. (1996) found a host of media use variables and several measures of community integration (including psychological attachment and interpersonal networks) predicting community involvement. Again, the links between mass communication and organizational involvement are more complex than that accounted for by a mere displacement hypothesis. Media provide audiences with information about organizations and their activities. Thus, media use could have a positive or negative impact on joining organizations, depending on whether they have developed negative perceptions based on that information. Some evidence points to a positive influence of mass communication on organizational affiliation.[ix] Since the media may operate in different ways, the following question is posed:

RQ1: How will media use variables be related to attempts to influence governance at the community level?

Other Predictors - Efficacy, Confidence in Institutions, Community Attachment, Political Campaign Involvement:

People’s civic participation also depends on their connections to the community and political institutions, as well as feelings of efficacy and confidence in those institutions. Higher efficacy has been linked to greater involvement in political processes (Joslyn & Cigler, 2001; Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Teixeira 1992), and the sociological literature often focuses on public confidence and trust in institutions as a central outcome of social capital or involvement in organizations ((Henkin & Zapt, 2006). Trust is seen as one dimension of social capital, although it often varies from trust of individuals to trust in organizations, in the government or in the community (BergerSchmitt, 2002). Banks (1997) defines social capital as both a network of trust enabling people to solve problems of collective action and as a facilitator of individuals’ control over events close to them. A study in Italy found that participation in associations generated not a generalized social trust but instead trust in specific institutions (Sciolla, 2003). Liu and Besser (2003) found that a sense of community was related to involvement in improvement activities but general trust was not, in a study of the elderly in small towns and rural areas.[x]

Community attachment is important for civic actions (Hays & Kogl, 2007). The concept captures both emotional attachments to neighborhood and community as well as measures assessing the available quality of life. Liu and Besser (2003) surveyed seniors in small towns to see how four dimensions of social capital (informal social ties,[xi] formal social ties,[xii] trust[xiii] and norms of collective action[xiv]) and sense of community[xv] are related to participation in community improvement activities (measured with a self reporting item[xvi]). While social capital and sense of community predicted elderly reports of participation in community improvement activities, they related differently to their community involvement. Sense of community and formal ties had much stronger relationships with community involvement than did informal ties and norms of collective action. Generalized trust was not significantly related to their community involvement. Education, income, gender, age and length of residence in the community were controlled. In England, McCulloch (2003) measured neighborhood social capital with eight questions tapping neighboring, a sense of belonging, willingness to work to improve the community, importance of relations with neighbors, communication with neighbors and attachment,[xvii] finding the summary scale linked to involvement in community organizations, ratings of local services, organizational affiliation and trust.

Involvement in the political system through voting and campaign activities represents another outcome as well as an intervening variable in our scenario. As noted above, a substantial literature documents relationships between communication variables, organizational involvement, and such political activity. Here we separate out these political behaviors from influence attempts at the community level to see whether the former operates as a mediating variable between communication, organizational involvement and our criterion variables—community-level action that can affect urban governance between elections.

Based on the literature examined, the following hypotheses are offered:

H3: Efficacy will be positively related to attempts to influence governance at the community level.

H4: Confidence in institutions will be positively related to attempts to influence governance at the community level.

H5: Community attachment will be positively related to attempts to influence governance at the community level.

H6: Involvement in the political system through voting and campaign activities will be positively relate to attempts to influence governance at the community level.


Our interest in untangling the web of influences on civic action leads us to the following research question:

RQ2: Will relationships between the criterion variable (attempts to influence governance at the community level) and organizational involvement, involvement in community communication networks, and media use be mediated by efficacy, confidence in institutions, community attachment or involvement in the political system?

Again, social categories will be controlled in examining the hypotheses and research questions.

Methods

A survey was conducted in the spring of 2004 in a major Midwest metropolitan area of the United States using a probability sample of adults interviewed with a (CATI) computer-aided telephone interviewing system. The survey was introduced as a regional public opinion poll. Traditional items were used to measure marital status, age, formal education completed, ethnicity, household income and gender. Other variables are operationalized below.

Criterion Variables

Public Influence Attempts: Two items taken from Miller’s (1991) scorecard for community services activity were used to ascertain attempts to influence public officials--political action. Respondents were asked if they had contacted their city council representatives about something or written a letter to a public official. Both items were coded as yes/no. In addition, two other measures of overt behaviors that may be important for influencing officials were included; respondents were asked if they attended any political meetings or rallies, and if they had initiated a political discussion; these are combined with the other two items for a second, four-item scale.[xviii] A single item ascertained activity to improve the community through joint action with others; respondents were asked to use a 0-10 scale to tell how much they agreed with the following, with 0 meaning completely disagree, 5 is the midpoint and 10 meaning completely agree: “I am actively involved in helping better my community.” This is a slight modification of the key measure used by Liu and Besser (2003), and it represents a self-assessment of one’s community involvement. These items were standardized and summed up for an index (alpha = .62). In addition to their role as indicators of the overall concept, these behaviors are important in their own right. A 2005 state-wide New York poll found that only 43 percent of respondents had attended a public forum or meeting, 38 percent had contacted a public official in the past year, 27 percent had volunteered with a neighborhood or civic group, and 18 percent had written a letter to a newspaper or called a radio show (Nisbet, 2005)..

However, these items are not merely indicators of a single concept but are self-reports of behaviors important in their own right. Contacting officials and writing letters are initiatives much too rare among the citizenry if we are to believe that democracy works best when citizens express themselves openly and tell their elected officials what they think. Going to a meeting is an effort that not only takes time but also suggests that citizens know where and when the council meets and what’s on the agenda, items more easily obtained online today than in the print or broadcast media. The item asking if respondents had initiated a political discussion is the easiest behavior to enact, while reports of involvement in activities that improve the community may be the most difficult.

Key Predictors - Communication and Organizational Involvement

Organizational Involvement—Respondents were asked if they belonged to any neighborhood or community organizations, including block clubs, social groups, religious groups, business groups or ethnic groups? The number was coded as a separate variable and the types of organizations were coded as individual dummy variables,[xix] with particular interest in membership in block clubs, a building block for urban neighborhoods.

A separate item asked respondents if they were involved with any groups or organizations that try to solve local problems, and the number was coded as a separate variable. A third item asked how interested they would be in “working with neighborhood or community groups working to improve things,” again using a 0-10 scale. For other studies using similar items see Hindman (2004), Lochner, Kawachi and Kennedy (1999), and Lelieveldt (2004).

Involvement in Neighborhood Communication Network—Three items were used to measure the strength of one neighborhood communication patterns linking residents to neighbors. All three are commonly used in measuring what urban scholars often call neighboring, and they represent informal opportunities for residents to develop relationships and discuss important community or political topics (see Lelieveldt, 2004).[xx] Responses were standardized and summed up for a scale (NeighCom Scale alpha = .80).

Mass Media Use—The traditional items were used to measure media use: frequency of Internet use at home or at work, hours of TV watched yesterday, how often usually watch TV news, hours listened to radio yesterday, days read a paper last week, number of different magazines read regularly, number of books read in past six months, number of borrowed, rented or purchased videos or DVDs watched in past month, number of times went out to see a movie in a theater in past month, and how often respondents accessed the Internet at home or at work.

Three items ascertained attention to public affairs topics in the news, providing a measure across the news media that is better focused for our interest in civic involvement. Respondents were asked to use a 0-10 scale to indicate how much they agreed with the following, with 0 meaning completely disagree, 5 is neutral and 10 meaning completely agree: I pay a lot of attention to what’s going on with local city and county government; I pay a lot of attention to international events in the media; I pay a lot of attention to news about what’s going on in government in Washington, D.C. Responses were standardized and summed up for a scale (Public Affairs Attention Scale alpha = .75). In addition, the first variable focusing on city and county government will be separated out for scrutiny.

Other Predictors:

Political Efficacy—Items modified slightly to fit the context were taken from Olsen’s (1969) political incapability scale. Respondents were asked to use a 0-10 scale to indicate how much they agreed with each of the following three items, with 0 meaning completely disagree, 5 being neutral and 10 meaning completely agree: 1) Public officials don’t care much what people like me think; 2) There’s no other way than voting that people like me can influence government actions; 3) People like me don’t have any say about what the government does. Responses were standardized and summed up for a scale (PolEfficacy Scale alpha = .64).

Confidence in Local Institutions—Respondents were asked to use a 0-10 scale to indicate how much confidence they had in each of nine institutions, where 0 meant absolutely none, 5 was the midpoint, and 10 meant complete confidence: county commissioners, the mayor, the governor, area business leaders, area labor leaders, the metro daily newspaper, local television stations, local religious leaders, and area colleges and universities. Responses were standardized and summed up for a scale (Institutional Confidence Scale alpha = .69).

Community Attachment—One item tapped quality-of-life perceptions, asking respondents to indicate the overall quality of life available in the metro area on a 0-10 scale where 0 was the worst possible and 10 the best possible. Three others asked respondents to use 0-10 scales to indicate attachment to the city, neighborhood and general area. The quality of life and attachment items have been used in a variety of studies (see Lochner, Kawachi & Kennedy, 1999). Responses to all four were standardized and summed up for a scale of community attachment (Community Attachment Scale alpha = .69).

Involvement in Political Campaigns—Eight items that operationalize Milbraith’s (1965) ladder of involvement were used to ascertain political involvement. Respondents were asked if they had: worn a button or put a sticker on their car, contributed money to a party or candidate, been active in a political party, solicited political funds, run for an office, or voted in the last major election. Responses were coded yes/no and a summary index created.[xxi]

Results

A total of 302 respondents were interviewed, for a cooperation rate of 30 percent, a percentage comparable to other national studies using interviews of this length.[xxii] The sample reflects a diverse community.[xxiii] Several of the social categories are related to the measure tapping attempts to influence public officials, which is positively correlated with being married (r=.16, p<.01), education (r=.39, p<.001) and household income (r=.20, p<.01). Social categories also are related to organizational connections,[xxiv] interpersonal and neighborhood communication,[xxv] media use,[xxvi] and community attachment.[xxvii] Thus, we need to take into account the social categories in subsequent analyses.

Testing Hypotheses

The first hypothesis said that organizational involvement would be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level. As Table 1 shows, the overall scale and all of the five constituent items are correlated with organizational involvement, including the number of groups with whom one belongs, the number of groups one belongs to that are helping to improve the community, and membership in block clubs, as well as membership in several other types of groups (school groups, help groups, special interest groups, self-help groups and political groups). In addition, most of these relationships persist with controls for social categories. Thus, consistent with the existing literature on political activity, we find organizational ties related to active attempts to influence governance. All of the relationships persist when social categories are controlled (see Table 2).

TABLE 1: Relationships between Public Influence Attempts and Organizational Involvement


Criterion Variables: Public Influence Scale/Constituent Items

Organizational Involvement Variables

Five-item scale

Contacted council rep

Wrote council rep

Attended meetings

Initiated discussion

Actively involved

No. organizations belong to

.34***

.28***

.21***

.14*

.22***

.18***

.26***

.22***

.12*

.05

.29***

.28***

No. neigh-community groups belong to

.35***

.29***

.18***

.13*

.24***

.21***

.26***

.23***

.16**

.08#

.28***

.27***

Block clubs

.15**

.16**

.15**

.15**

.15**

.15***

.03

.04

.09#

.10*

.06

.06

General community groups

.06

.04

.06

.04

.11*

.11*

.00

-.03

-.01

-.03

.05

.03

Religious groups

.12*

.07

.12*

.06

.12*

.08#

-.02

-.05

.10*

.04

.12*

.13*

School-education groups

.17**

.20***

.10*

.12*

.11*

.12*

.19***

.20***

.03

.03

.15**

.15**

Fraternal groups

.07

.07

.05

.03

.07

.07

.05

.05

.01

.01

.03

.04

Youth groups

-.03

-.02

-.06

-.03

-.04

-.02

.05

.04

-.06

-.06

.03

.01

Professional groups

.12*

.08

.04

.02

.04

.02

.13*

.09#

.10*

.04

.07

.07

Self-help groups

.21***

.19***

.12*

.09#

.12*

.09#

.20***

.19***

.09#

.06

.14**

.13*

Business groups

.06

.01

-.01

-.05

.02

.00

.10*

.09#

.05

.00

.02

-.01

Special interest Groups

.21***

.22***

.15**

.14*

.15**

.13*

.20***

.20***

.04

.04

.14**

.16**

Sports groups

-.04

-.02

-.09#

-.06

-.07

-.05

-.02

-.03

.08

.10#

-.02

-.03

Political groups

.16***

.16***

.09#

.08#

.12*

.11*

.10*

.10*

.06

.06

.12*

.13*

Military groups

-.02

-.01

-.07

-.04

.12*

.14*

-.07

-.08

-.11*

-.11*

.05

.05

Labor groups

.10*

.11*

.01

.01

-.03

.02

.10*

.11*

.06

.06

.11*

.12*

General social Groups

.05

.02

.00

-.03

-.04

-.07

.08#

.06

.05

.01

.08#

.08#

Note: The first figure in each row is the bivariate correlation; the figure in the second row is the partial correlation controlling for social categories (level of education; age; annual household income; gender; marital status, and ethnicity. The sample size varies slightly for some correlations from the base of 306 because of missing data. #=p<.10; *=p<.05; **=p<.01; ***=p<.001.

TABLE 2: Relationships between Public Influence Attempts and Media Use


Criterion Variables: Public Influence Scale/Constituent Items

Media Use

Five-item scale

Contacted

council rep

Wrote

council rep

Attended

meetings

Initiated

discussion

Actively

involved

Frequency go on Internet


.28***

.22***

.01

.03


.16**

.16**


.24***

.16**


.26***

.13*


.21***

.17**


No. hours watched TV yesterday


-.19***

-.15**


-.10*

-.10*


-.10*

-.08#


-.15**

-.12*


-.18***

-.13*


-.07

-.06


Freq. watch TV news

.03

.00


.04

-.04


.05

.01


.02

.02


-.01

-.02


.00

.01


No. hours listened to

Radio yesterday

.00

.03

.02

.06

.00

.03


.06

.06


.01

.03

-.02

-.03

No. days read paper last week

.19***

.12*


.16**

.04

.12*

.02

.18***

.19***

.11*

.04

.06

.10#

No. magazines read regularly

.15**

.09#

.10*

.06

.14**

.12*

.12*

.09#

.08#

.02

.04

.02

No. books read in past Six months

.19***

.07

.04

-.04

.12*

.03


.13*

.07

.21***

.08#

.13*

.11*

No. DVDs, videos watched in past month

.04

.03

-.07

-.01

.00

.03

.03

-.02

.06

.00

.09#

.05

No. times went out to See film in theater

.08

.07

-.05

-.01

.06

.08

.10#

.06

.06

.05

.07

.04

Attention to public affairs news scale

.42***

.38***

.31***

.25***

.27***

.18***

.27***

.26***

.28***

.22***

.20***

.24***

Pay attention to local city, county gov. news

.37***

.35***

.34***

.29***

.21***

.15**

.23***

.24***

.21***

.20***

.20***

.23***

Pay attention to international news

.30***

.24***

.20***

.14**

.23***

.15**

.20***

.17**

.24***

.16**

.07

.10#

Pay attention to national government news

.36***

.32***

.22***

.17**

.21**

.14**

.24***

.23***

.25***

,20***

.19***

.22***

Note: The first figure in each row is the bivariate correlation; the figure in the second row is the partial correlation controlling for social categories (level of education; age; annual household income; gender; marital status, and ethnicity. The sample size varies slightly for some correlations from the base of 306 because of missing data. #=p<.10; *=p<.05; **=p<.01; ***=p<.001.

The second hypothesis said that involvement in community communication networks would be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level. We find that involvement in the community communication network is correlated with the scale measuring civic influence attempts at the local level, even with social categories controlled (r=.28, p<.001; partial r=.24, p<.001) and all of the individual constituent variables, although two of the five relationships drop below statistical significance with controls: contacting city council representatives (r=.33, p<.001; partial r=.25, p<.001); writing letters to public officials (r=.15, p<..01; partial r=.09, p<.08); attending political meetings (r=.15, p<.01; partial r=.15, p<.01); initiating political discussions (r=.11, p<.05; partial r=.06 n.s.); and reporting active involvement in efforts to better the community (r=.17, p<.01; partial r=.20, p<.001).

Even more significantly, when we add the two measures of membership in organizations (total number and number of groups that try to improve the community), the correlations persist (partial r with scale =.21, p<.001). Thus, involvement in neighborhood communication networks contribute above and beyond organizational membership in stimulating attempts to influence governance.

Our first research question asked how media use variables would be related to attempts to civic influence attempts at the community level. As Table 2 shows, television has a negative effect on influence attempts, consistent with Putnam’s thesis about the negative impact of television, though not necessarily through time displacement. But reading newspapers more frequently, going on the Internet more often, and paying more attention to public affairs in the news are positively correlated with the scale tapping civic influence attempts, and these relationships persist with social categories controlled. Internet use and television viewing are related to four of the five constituent variables with demographics controlled, and reading the newspaper is related to attending meetings.

The third hypothesis said that efficacy would be positively related to attempts at civic influence at the community level. Results showed that efficacy was not related to the scale or any of the constituent items tapping civic influence attempts, and controlling for social categories doesn’t alter the pattern much. The partial correlation between efficacy and contacting city council representatives approaches statistical significance (partial r=.09, p<.08).

The fourth hypothesis said that confidence in institutions would be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level. Results are in the reverse direction. The less confident one is in institutions, the more likely one is to try to influence local governance (r=-.12, p<.05). In addition, the scale is negatively associated with three of the items (contacting city council representatives r=-.14, p<.02; attending political meetings r=-.18, p<.003; initiating political discussions r=-.16, p<.006) and positively related to one, reporting one is actively involved in helping better the community (r=.16, p<.007). Thus, those with the least confidence are more active, although the relationship with the overall scale drops below statistical significance with social categories controlled (partial r=-.18, p<.10); the other correlations retain their significance. As Fuchs, Shapiro and Minnite (2001) note, political involvement in central city neighborhoods historically has been based on conflict rather than consensus-building; to the extent that conflict and dissatisfaction are joined together, we might find that those disappointed in their institutions attempt to influence public actions in the absence of local organizations, e.g., directly contacting their council representatives.

The fifth hypothesis said that community attachment would be positively related to civic influence attempts at the community level. Results showed those most attached to their community are more likely to try to influence local governance (r=.29, p<.001), and this relationship persists with social categories controlled (partial r=.20, p<.001). Attachment also is related to each of the constituent items: contacting city council representatives (r=.14, p<.008); writing letters to public officials (r=.14, p<.02); attending political meetings (r=.16, p<.003; partial r=.11, p<.05); initiating political discussions (r=.20, p<.001; partial r=.11, p<.04); and reporting active involvement to help better the community (r=.25, p<.001; partial r=.26, p<.001), but relationships with making contact with city council representatives and writing public officials drop out with social categories controlled.

The final hypothesis said that involvement in the political system through voting and campaign activities would be positively linked to attempts at civic influence at the community level. Strong relationships are found between the measure of involvement in political campaigns (wearing a button or putting a sticker on one’s car, contributing money to a party or candidate, being active in a political party, soliciting political funds, and running for an office, and voting in the last major election) and the scale and constituent variables tapping civic influence attempts. These relationships persist with social categories controlled: civic influence scale (r=.46, p<.001; partial r=.40, p<.001); contacting council representatives (r=.24, p<.001; partial r=.20, p<.001); writing a letter to public officials (r=.24, p<.001; partial r=.20, p<.001); attending political meetings (r=.39, p<.001; partial r=.35, p<.001); initiating political discussions (r=.22, p<.001; partial r=.14, p<.02); and reporting active involvement in helping better the community (r=.35, p<.001; partial r=.32, p<.001).

The second research question asked if relationships between the criterion variable (civic influence attempts at the community level) and organizational involvement, involvement in community communication networks, and media use would be mediated by efficacy, confidence in institutions, community attachment or involvement in political campaigns. We examined the relationships in Hypotheses 1-2 and Research Question 1 controlling for efficacy, confidence in institutions, and community attachment, finding that most of the relationships persist. Thus, the five-item scale tapping civic influence attempts is correlated with the number of organizations one belongs to (partial r=.28, p<.001), the neighborhood communication scale (partial r=.18, p<.003), and the same three key media variables, frequency one goes on the Internet (partial r=.21, p<.001), the number of days last week one read a newspaper (partial r=.12, p<.04), and attention to public affairs in the news (partial r=.31, p<.001), controlling for efficacy, institutional confidence, community attachment and involvement in political campaign activities.

Finally, we entered the predictor variables into a hierarchical regression to determine the impact of communication and organizational variables when entered simultaneously (see Table 3). The set of social categories was entered first, with education proving to be the only significant predictor. Next we entered four variables, efficacy, institutional confidence, community attachment and involvement in political campaigns; the betas for all but efficacy were statistically significant. Finally, the organizational and communication variables were entered, with three key predictors— membership in community organizations that try to solve local problems, attention to public affairs news in the media, frequency one goes on the Internet and time spent watching television, the last a negative predictor. The beta for the number of organizations belonged to approaches significance.

TABLE 3: Hierarchical Regression Predicting Civic Influence Attempts


R Square

R Square Change

F Change

Significant Standardized Betas

Social Categories

(6 variables)

0.38

0.14

8.36 p<.001

Education b=.16 p<.001

Key Predictors

(4 variables)

0.56

0.17

18.0 p<.001

Community attachment b=.18 p<.001

Institutional confidence b=-.11 p<.03

Involvement in pol. campaigns

b=.38 p<.001

Organizational & Communication Variables

(13 variables)

0.67

0.14

5.46 p<.001

No. orgs. belong to b=.10 p<.06

No. orgs. improving neigh. b=.14 p<.01

Attention to public affairs news in media b=.20 p<.001

Freq. go on Internet b=.11 p<.05

No. hours watch TV b=-.15 p<.003


R=.67, R Sq.=.45, F=10.03, p<.001, N=306

Note: Social categories include the following: age, gender, education, income, white ethnicity, married marital status. Other key predictors include: efficacy, institutional confidence, community attachment, involvement in political campaigns. Organizational and communication variables include: involvement in neighborhood communication network, number of groups one belongs to, number of groups one belongs to that work to improve community, attention to public affairs news in media (scale), hours watched TV, frequency watch TV news, frequency go on Internet, number of hours listened to radio yesterday, number of days read newspaper last week, number of books read in the past six months, number of DVDs, videos watched in the past month, number of times went out to see a film in a theater in the past month.

These analyses support the importance of organizational involvement, neighborhood communication networks, and attention to public affairs content in the media as stimulants for attempts to influence local governance in urban areas; in addition, Internet use and not spending a lot of time watching television are important predictors, and these influences persist beyond campaign involvement, institutional confidence and community attachment. The attention measure appears to account for much of the variance that would be accounted for by newspaper reading; substituting the latter for the former produces a beta that approaches significance in a parallel regression.

Discussion

In the final analysis, all politics is local, the pundits say, but the literature often ignores community or treats it as a stand in for society. That certainly appears to be the case for much of the social capital literature as well. Here we’ve focused on the community level in an urban area, finding independent contributions from communication and organizational involvement as predictors of civic influence attempts. Furthermore, the neighborhood communication network and mediated channels are important.

The “real” interest behind a focus on social capital is understanding what holds people together or discourages them from mobilizing with their friends and neighbors to effect change, to solve problems, to influence the public arena in our urban centers. Organizations and communication have been placed center stage in this scenario, providing opportunities for people so interested, motivating people to get involved, or acting as “warning indicators” in societies and communities that have lost some of the potential for civic engagement necessary for a working democracy. Slapping the “social capital” label on organizational affiliations or interpersonal communication networks does little to advance these concerns. What we added here were more targeted behaviors of influence, separating out contacts with public officials from general political involvement or engagement. We learn that even controlling for involvement in political campaigns does not nullify the importance of the neighborhood communication network, organizational ties and media channels.

Our analysis represents an effort to tease out the nature of different aspects of civic engagement, and its relationship to a host of communication variables that make up that system at the community level. Is it organizational affiliation alone or in conjunction with informal communication networks that stimulates such engagement? The answer tentatively provided here appears to be that there is a mutual influence.

Media use plays a more complicated role than suggested by the literature. The finding that time spent with television is a negative predictor of civic influence attempts supports the old “videomalaise” hypothesis (Robinson, 1976) rather than Putnam’s suggested time-displacement of organizational activities. Attention to public affairs news across mass media is a powerful predictor, but we see that Internet use alone makes an additional contribution. Newspapers and other traditional mass media today provide little of the “watchdog” information that would allow citizens to monitor what’s going on in city halls on a regular basis. But the Internet has provided a home not only to City Council agendas but also minutes and other mobilizing information (Lemert, 1984) important for civic action in urban centers (Jeffres & Lin, 2006). Thus, as political campaign strategists have already learned, the Internet, whether through media websites or official city websites, may become a crucial factor for civic engagement and governance of urban centers.

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Endnotes

1 Wollebaek and Selle (2002) examine relations among the following variables: social trust,[1] social connectedness (networks, interpersonal contact, and organizational affiliation), and civic engagement (voting behavior, political interest, reading news in daily papers). Results showed that organizational membership was related to all variables--trust, social networks and civic engagement. Active participation (face-to-face contact) was related to social trust among young people but to none of the other variables.

2 Grant (2001) describes a case study in Guatemala where community organizations and informal links were important for mobilization and development of neighborhoods. Bridger and Luloff (2001) link social capital to sustainable community development. Paek, Yoon and Shah (2004) looked at the community-level context and such factors as home ownership, diversity, and newspaper use, and how they affect civic engagement—measured via items that include volunteering and working on a community project. Liu and Besser (2003) found that formal organizational ties were related to community involvement measured as participating in local improvement activities in a study of seniors in small towns and rural areas. Leonard and Onyx (2003) note that the type of connection is as important as the strength of the tie. Thus, bridging is associated with loose ties across communities and bonding is associated with strong ties within a limited group. Their qualitative study of 39 participants connected through community organizations in New South Wales suggests that loose and strong ties are not synonymous with bridging and bonding. Results show that people prefer to bridge through their strong ties. The exceptions were ties to professionals, who were highly trusted but defined as loose ties. They recommend a model for a high social capital society might be a chain of well-bonded groups, each with strong links to some other groups.

3 Bourdieu (1985) defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition—or, in other words, to membership in a group—which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’—which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word” (pp. 248-249).

4 Scheufele, Nisbet, Broussard and Nisbet (2004) measure political activity via seven items tapping voting, attending meetings, contacting public officials, circulating petitions, working for campaigns, raising funds and writing letters to the editor. They integrate into a single model predicting political participation not only interpersonal discussion networks (across three contexts--work, volunteering and church) but also network heterogeneity and attention to both print and broadcast news. Scheufele, Nisbet, Brossard and Nisbet (2004) found that the frequency with which one talked about political issues with people in community or volunteer groups was directly related to political participation. A study in France found that people who were members in one or several associations were more politicized, although it did not make them more confident or civic (Mayer, 2003). Hooghe (1999) found that participation in associations affected social attitudes in the Flemish population of Belgium. Much of the discussion around social capital is consistent with an older model of how to look at relationships among these variables—socialization—although the criterions variable is less political knowledge or norms than social action. For a recent discussion of political socialization, see Dudley and Gitelson (2002) and other articles in a special issue of Applied Developmental Science (2002), vol. 6, no. 4.

5 Also noting the economic origins of the concept, Smith and Kulynych (2002) argue that the term should be replaced by “social capacity,” largely to avoid ideological associations with the second word of the term.

6 For the most recent research and a comprehensive list of work stemming from this project, consult the website: http://www.metamorph.org.

7 Baum, Modra, Bush, Cox, Cooke and Potter (1999) found volunteers in organizations to have stronger community contacts (visiting neighbors) and stronger social participation (use of community facilities and attending social events) than non-volunteers. They also were more likely to engage in individual and collective civic activities—signing petitions, writing political representatives, writing letters to the editor, attending council meetings, working in social campaigns, working in political campaigns, and getting involved in religious, school, service and ethnic groups.

8 An extensive literature over many years shows positive effects of news media use on both political knowledge and images as well as reports of active participation in campaigns and political processes that include voting (e.g., Blumler & McLeod, 1974; Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986; Guo & Moy, 1998; McLeod, Daily, et al., 1996; Smith, 1987). McLeod et al. (1999) looked at willingness to participate in a citizen forum as a dependent variable in a structural model where size and heterogeneity of political discussion networks, interpersonal discussion of politics and community issues, local public affairs media use, and reflection were antecedent endogenous variables.

9 Hindman (2004) looks at the relationship between media use and social participation, which includes participation in political groups, boycotts, demonstrations or marches, belonging to groups that took local actions, attending political events, participating in ethnic organizations, and participation in a host of private organizations. In a factor analysis, four factors emerged for analysis—conflict groups (political groups or activities), clubs (hobbies, professional, sports, private interest groups), support (seniors, self help, charity and religious groups), and youth (parent and youth organizations). Newspaper reading was positively related to all four types of social participation, while television viewing was positively related to support and youth groups but negatively related to conflict and club participation. Internet use was positively related to conflict and club participation. Political knowledge, political interest and social trust were related to most of the different types of social participation.

10 Looking at social trust, social altruism, equality, tolerance, and humanitarianism as soft evidence of social capital, Brewer (2003) found public employment a predictor of civic participation; he argues that public servants appear to be catalysts for building social capital in society at large. Using data from the 1975-1995 General Social Surveys, Paxton (1999) finds a decline in trust in individuals but not in trust in institutions or associations. Berger Schmitt (2002) links social cohesion and trust to the quality of life literature.

11 Measured by items tapping number of relatives/in-laws, friends, acquaintances in the community (on four-point scale ranging from none to all).

12 Measured with an item asking number of local groups and organizations one belongs to.

13 Measured with item asking respondents to tell whether their community is trusting or not on a 7-point scale.

14 Measured with three items to which respondents indicated how much they agreed using a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree: 1) When something needs to be done, the whole community usually gets behind it; 2) Community clubs and organizations are interested in what is the best for all residents; 3) Most everyone in (name of community) is allowed to contribute to local government affairs if they want to.

15 Measured with two items: 1) “Some people care a lot about feeling part of the community they live in. For others, the community is not so important. How important is it to you to feel part of the community?” Responses included: little or no importance, somewhat important, and very important; 2) “How interested are you in knowing what goes on in (name of community)?” Responses included: not interested, neither interested nor disinterested, somewhat interested, and very interested.”

16 The item was: “In general, how would you describe your level of involvement in local community improvement activities and events? Not at all active, not very active, somewhat active and very active.”

17 The items were: I feel like I belong to this neighborhood; The friendships and associations I have with other people in my neighbourhood mean a lot to me; If I needed advice about something I could go to someone in my neighbourhood; I borrow things and exchange favours with my neighbours; I would be willing to work together on something to improve my neighbourhood; I plan to remain a resident of this neighbourhood for a number of years; I like to think of myself as similar to the people who live in thie neighbourhood; I regularly stop and talk with people in my neighbourhood.

18 These items have been used by a host of researchers, e.g., Hardy (2004), Rojas (2003), Schuldt et al. (2001).

19 They included political, special interest (promoting causes), block clubs, school or education groups (e.g., PTA, booster clubs), help organizations (e.g., Red Cross, health groups, rape crisis center), labor groups (e.g., union), religious groups.

20 One asked how many of the 10 closest neighbours one knows well enough to say hello or good morning to when they meet them on the street. Two others asked respondents to use the 0-10 scale to indicate agreement: “I often talk with neighbours on the street or while I’m in my yard”; “I spend more time talking with my neighbours than most people do.”

21 Alpha is an inappropriate statistic for a summary index based on additive scores of 0-1.

22 See: Pew Research Center (2004) and McGuckin, Keyes, and Liss (2006).

23 The sample was 45 percent male, 50 percent female, with 64 percent white, 20 percent black, and rest other ethnic categories. About 45 percent were college graduates or had advanced degrees, with 31 percent completing some college, and 18 percent high school graduates. Twenty three percent were age 30 or younger, 21 percent age 31-40, 21 percent age 41-50, 15 percent age 51-60, 11 percent age 61-70, and 9 percent age 71 or older. Some 41 percent were married and a fourth either divorced or widowed, with 31 percent never married and 4 percent separated. The median household income was about $50,000. While 57 percent identified themselves as Democrats (31% strong, and 26% lean towards), 25 percent identified themselves as independents or a member of some other party, and 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans (7 percent strong, and 12% lean towards).

24 Social categories also are related to measures of organizational connections, with positive correlations between the number of community organizational affiliations and being married (r=.12, p<.05), formal education (r=.21, p<.001), and household income (r=.14, p<.001). Only three social category variables are correlated with involvement in organizations that try to solve local problems, education (r=.21, p<.001), income (r=.14, p<.03), and being married (r=.12, p<.05). Interest in working with neighborhood or community groups working to improve things is related to education (r=.11, p<.05) and ethnicity/being non-white (r=-.14, p<.01). A few correlations appear between social categories and affiliation with specific types of groups.

25 Social categories also are related to measures of communication that connect people to each other and their communities and institutions. Age is positively associated with neighborhood communication (r=.20, p<.001), as are education (r=.12, p<.02), household income (r=.21, p<.001), being married (r=.28, p<.001), and ethnicity/being white (r=.15, p<.007), and the correlation with gender (r=.08, p<.10) approaches statistical significance.

26 Predictable relationships are found between social categories and measures of mass media use. Thus, for example, older respondents (r=.23, p<.001), those who are married (r=.16, p<.004), caucasians (r=.12, p<.03), men (r=.14, p<..02) and those with more education (r=.18, p<.002) pay greater attention to public affairs news.

27 Thus, older people (4=.13, p<.02), the more educated (r=.26, p<.001), the more affluent (r=.21, p<.001), and married people (r=.23, p<.001) are more attached to their community.




The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441